Sanford impeachment hearings begin

COLUMBIA — Legislators irked for months over Gov. Mark Sanford's summertime vanishing act and his tearful revelation that he was in Argentina for a rendezvous with his lover plan to start debating a measure Tuesday that ultimately would remove him from office.


The Republican faces 37 ethics charges about his travel and campaign finances, but the seven lawmakers who make up a panel of the House Judiciary Committee that will debate impeachment are focused solely this week on his five-day absence in June and failure to put someone in charge of the state while he was gone.

The four Republicans who sponsored the measure contend he was derelict in his duty and wrong to mislead staffers into thinking he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

The measure says in part that Sanford's "conduct under these circumstances has brought extreme dishonor and shame to the Office of the Governor of South Carolina and to the reputation of the State of South Carolina." It continues that it has caused the office and state "to suffer ridicule resulting in extreme shame and disgrace."

The panel of three Democrats and four Republicans includes Chairman Jim Harrison. The Columbia Republican said Monday that later meetings will consider the 37 civil charges Sanford is facing following a three-month State Ethics Commission probe.

Among other violations, Sanford is accused of using taxpayer money for high-priced airplane tickets that took him around the world and to Argentina.

Sanford's attorney said the governor looks forward to answering the "technical questions" regarding his travel and finances at a commission hearing early next year. The civil charges carry up to $74,000 in fines.

Sanford has been under scrutiny and pressure to step down since admitting to an extramarital affair with the woman he has called his "soul mate." He has never revealed the identity of a so-called "back channel" senior administration official the governor contends could have reached him in an emergency.

Sanford's state e-mail and phone records show he was not in touch with his office while abroad.

If the impeachment measure passes the panel, it would head to the full Judiciary Committee. From there it would need a majority vote of the 25 members to get it to the House floor in January for debate. A two-thirds vote in favor would result in Sanford's suspension.

The Senate, acting as jury, then would decide whether Sanford would be removed from office, which would also require a two-thirds vote. His second and final term ends in January 2011.

The ethics probe came after a series of Associated Press investigations showed the governor had for years used state airplanes for political and personal trips, flown in pricey commercial airline seats despite a low-cost travel requirement and failed to disclose trips on planes owned by friends and donors.

The State of Columbia newspaper also questioned whether Sanford properly reimbursed himself from his campaign cash.

"We are confident that we will be able to address each of these questions, none of which constitutes findings of guilt and none of which we believe rise anywhere near to the traditional standard of impeachment," Sanford attorney Butch Bowers said Monday.

Even some lawmakers who have called for Sanford to quit questioned whether the charges are weighty enough to cut short the governor's tenure.

"If it's relatively minor ethics violations, I don't believe there will be sentiment there to remove the governor," House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham said.

But state Sen. Larry Martin said the charges shouldn't be downplayed. He derided the notation from Sanford's lawyers that the charges came from a small percentage of the total flights and records examined by the commission.

"Most bank robbers have been in and out of banks hundreds of times but only rob it once," Martin said.

The first lady and the couple's four sons moved out of the governor's mansion. Though the Sanfords have said they were trying to reconcile, Jenny Sanford more recently has described the two as separated.



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